Performance Art: The Radical Edge of Theatrics : Stage Method and Tradition Take a Vacation When Student Performers at UC Irvine Explore the Fringes of Self-Expression

Times Staff Writer

With two raw chickens, a frozen burrito and a loaf of French bread, Tim Lu staged a wildly unconventional puppet show.

Erin Witt shared her “morning ritual,” riding a bicycle around the room while biting down on a ball of twine, then kneeling before a homemade altar, all to the loud buzz of an electric egg beater.

And Douglas Baker, wearing a lacy, sequined jumpsuit, a naked baby doll dangling from his waist and a sword at his side, issued a vitriolic retort against the anti-gay stance of Orange County’s religious Right. “You can take my body but you can’t kill my spirit,” he sang. “I am free, I will dance into the gas chamber.”


A typical Friday afternoon at UC Irvine? Absolutely, thanks to John White, who teaches a performance art class where students execute original works in the experimental avant-garde medium that has been known to shock, outrage and, in its diversity, defy pat definition.

“The students learn how to construct pieces, and I try to teach them--and don’t ask me to define it--what performance art is,” White said recently. “And we do it. I come up with different definitions every 10 weeks.”

Performance art is an interdisciplinary form that draws on dance, theater and visual art. Born of a turn-of-the-century revolt against the cultural Establishment, it was practiced in the 1920s by the Dadaists and revitalized with 1950s “happenings.” Today, some experts say, the medium has lost much of its radical edge to greater refinement. It’s still hardly prime-time television fare, but many of its current practitioners opt for incisive, politically charged monologues or expensive high-tech productions, rather than lighting fires, smearing themselves with food or torturing a cockroach to death, for instance.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, UC Irvine was a focal point of ground-breaking innovation in performance art. Leading the way were students such as Chris Burden, who had himself shot in the arm for “Shoot,” a notorious work that brought international attention to Orange County and, some say, played a key role in the development of performance art.

Despite this historic distinction, little performance art is seen in Orange County these days (see accompanying story) except at UC Irvine, where classes in performance have been taught for 10 years. White, who has taught the course more often than anyone, has helped maintain a link not only to the school’s past but to other areas, Los Angeles mainly, where observers say the expression thrives.

“UCI, in particular through the person of Chris Burden, had an enormous influence on performance art throughout the world,” says Chapman College art professor Richard Turner. “That precedence alone is reason to keep the homes fires burning, in hopes of another Chris Burden coming out of UCI. And if they do, it’ll be because of John White. If they don’t, it’ll be because John doesn’t teach the class anymore.”

“John is continuing the educational ground for performance art and . . . creating connections for his students into work where it’s happening,” adds Jackie Apple, a Los Angeles writer and performance artist, one of several leaders in the field who White invites each quarter to perform and critique students’ work. Other guest lecturers have included Tim Miller, Ping Chong, Linda Albertano and Rachel Rosenthal.

Most of these guests are friends. White, 52, was a well-known performance artist in Southern California, having worked at it for 20 years before “retiring” in 1987, and he keeps close ties with the performance community. His students often take part in professional works (four appeared with Apple last summer) and take more advanced classes.

“John’s course is fertile ground for people,” says Miller, co-founder of Highways, a performance and dance space in Santa Monica. “A number of students in my (performance) workshop at Highways have come out of it.”

Beefy and rather rumpled, White is friendly and unpretentious, enthusiastic, yet easygoing. He would like to see more performance art done locally but, he says, “I haven’t pushed to have it in Orange County. I just teach it.” He would like the university to instigate a two-year performance art major, but says he is “not good with politics.” (Jerry Anderson, UCI’s fine art department chairman, said “limited resources” have prevented a performance art major.)

White studied painting and sculpture in the late 1960s at the Otis/Parsons Art Institute in Los Angeles and “really got into” performance art after a workshop there with Steve Paxton, who had moved West from New York.

Paxton emphasized individualistic solo work, similar to the sort White teaches today, challenging students to transcend the boundaries of tradition and, critically, to mine their personal perceptions and experiences.

White’s students create two- to 10-minute solos about their thoughts and feelings, addressing a range of ideas and subjects, from societal rules of personal conduct to fear of flying. During a recent class, 21-year-old Eveline Shih blew apart the convention that forbids people at parties to display anything less than sunny dispositions. She shuffled off the small stage, grabbed her stomach in anguish and dejectedly jutted her head into a classmate’s shoulder. Stomping her feet like a child denied dessert, she stopped to say, “Sorry, I’m not a party person. I’ve been feeling depressed lately.”

In stocking feet, Tony Lee climbed onto a stool and balanced precipitously on one leg to express the fright he felt on a flight to Europe. Extending his arms horizontally as if he were an airplane, his body shook; he nearly fell, but instead jumped onto a nearby chair. It was like watching a trapeze artist without a net.

The students are encouraged to use “no acting, no characterization, no histrionics,” says White, who has based some of his own works on his passion for golf and the raising of his daughter.

And, rather than conforming to a formalized dance technique or choreographer’s steps, a more natural, intrinsic approach to movement is sought.

For instance, if asked to perform a certain movement and a student says, “I can’t make that move,” White says, “How can you do it?”

“And they say, ‘I’d have to do it on my knees but isn’t that silly, John?’ And I say ‘Let’s try it and see if it’s interesting.’

“It has a lot to do with ‘Hey, if you have a handicap, whatever it may be, if you get nervous, if you’re underweight or overweight, use it as a positive element, don’t hide it from me.’ I teach this class because, besides liking performance art myself, I think it’s a wider range of expression for people who don’t have those trained bodies or the interest in memorizing lines or whatever.”

This quarter, White’s nine-member class consists mostly of visual art majors. Most admit they are dabblers. Only Douglas Baker says he definitely plans to continue performing. Still, all express admiration and affection for White, and say they feel enriched by the class, where munchies and constructive criticism are shared in a relaxed atmosphere.

Like her classmates, Shih admits with a laugh that her other friends think the class is “rather odd.” But “it’s changed my perspective,” she adds, “because now I know I can break rules if I ever chose to, in a deliberate manner in any form of art.”

“It’s a very personal class, and kind of hard to deal with,” says Ana Iniguez, 22. “But John really pushes you to get the best out of yourself.”

Baker, 25, who recently staged an impromptu on-campus performance of his piece about homosexual rights, says White has been supportive and encouraged him to persist and strive for improvement. And, “John has helped me by not censoring my thought process, by giving me freedom.”

For their final exam, White’s nine winter-quarter students will present works for the public Friday at 8 p.m. in studio-art rooms 260 and 265 adjacent to the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery. Dan Goodsell, a former student of White’s who is now a professional visual and performance artist, will stage a work of his own during the same program. Information: (714) 856-6648.